Can employers be criminally liable for antitrust violations? According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), the answer is yes.
Violations of antitrust law in the employment context have made headlines in recent years, as the government has cracked down on “no-poach” and “salary-fixing” agreements between companies. Taking the issue increasingly seriously, the DOJ issued guidance promising to bring criminal charges against employers for such illegal conduct.
First, some background. From an antitrust perspective, greater competition among employers not only helps employees – who can negotiate for higher wages or better benefits between companies – but also benefits consumers more generally. Therefore, Section One of the Sherman Act prohibits employers from expressly or implicitly agreeing not to compete with one another, even for seemingly innocuous and beneficial reasons (like saving money).
Demonstrating the government’s interest in employment antitrust violations, the DOJ filed suit in 2010 against Adobe Systems, Apple, eBay, Google, Intel, Intuit, Lucasfilm, and Pixar, accusing the companies of promising not to recruit each other’s employees. While the cases resulted in consent judgments for the companies involved, the deals didn’t come cheap. Intuit, Lucas Films, and Pixar paid a total of $20 million to settle, while Adobe, Apple, Google, and Intel agreed to a $324 million settlement.
In 2016, the DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – the two federal agencies that share the responsibility to enforce the antitrust laws – released guidance to help employers avoid potential violations of federal law. The overriding message from the agencies: an agreement among competing employers to limit or fix the terms of employment for potential hires may violate the antitrust laws if the agreement constrains individual firm decision making with regard to wages, salaries or benefits, the terms of employment or even job opportunities.
The DOJ also vowed to proceed criminally against naked wage-fixing or no-poach agreements going forward.
“These types of agreements eliminate competition in the same irredeemable way as agreements to fix product prices or allocate consumers, which have traditionally been criminally investigated and prosecuted as hardcore cartel conduct,” the DOJ explained. If an investigation uncovers wage-fixing or no-poaching agreements, the agency “may, in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, bring criminal, felony charges against the culpable participants in the agreement, including both individuals and companies.”
To avoid facing jail time for an employment crime, businesses need to educate human resources professionals and employees responsible for hiring about the dangers of no-poach and salary-fixing agreements and establish a compliance program to avoid any errors.
Top on the “not to do” list: entering into agreements regarding the terms of employment with companies that compete to hire employees. This prohibition applies to all agreements, whether written or unwritten, spoken or unspoken. Even informal agreements – for example, where individuals at two competing companies agree that employees at a given position should not be paid above a certain amount or a particular range, or the individuals promise each other not to hire or solicit each other’s workers – are illegal.
It is important to remember that the prohibition on salary-fixing extends beyond simply what a worker is paid and includes other benefits as well, from transit subsidies to meals. If one HR professional wants to stop offering increasingly expensive gym memberships to employees and reaches out to other companies to ask that they stop offering gym memberships as well, that would likely violate antitrust law if the companies reached an agreement.
So-called “gentleman’s agreements” with other companies are equally illegal, even if they are unwritten and informal; nor does the use of a third party intermediary insulate an employer from liability under antitrust law, such as a situation where a group of nonprofits hire a consultant who communicates a “pay scale” to all the organizations to establish a wage cap.
Employers should also take care to avoid sharing sensitive information with competitors, which could serve as evidence of an implicit illegal agreement.
Even the mere suggestion of an illegal agreement may constitute an antitrust violation, despite the fact that an agreement is not reached. The FTC filed an enforcement action against an online retailer that emailed a proposal to a competitor that both companies offer their products at the same price. The competitor passed on the invitation and notified the FTC. Even though no agreement was reached, the “invitation to collude” was sufficient for the company to face legal action.
With salary-fixing and no-poach agreements on the government’s radar – and the threat of criminal charges and penalties looming – employers should make an effort to develop antitrust training and compliance programs before a problem arises.